Now the difference with something like theory, you know, when you teach someone music theory all you’re doing is you’re just showing him this stuff. You’re saying, look this is a minor second and this is a minor third and it has this sound attached to it and this is a fifth and you work into things like the different types of chords and skills and all these other you know the higher-level Theory concepts. You would just be showing that stuff to this kid, stuff that they would have eventually figured out on their own. So you can kind of imagine that as you’re trying to develop your ability to create music you have these two paths that you can walk. You can go down the experimental path where you just try things and discover everything on your own or you go down what I’ll call the guided path where someone is there like me perhaps telling you that you know this sounds this way and this sounds like this and here’s this pattern and whatever. That’s what I’d call the guide approach. Now there are huge pitfalls and issues you run into either direction you take and we’ll start with the guided approach. One of the biggest problems and this is what I was saying earlier that you know some people learn theory and they wind up not being able to create music. That it’s very easy when someone is teaching you things to let what you’re being taught interfere with the step 2 part of writing music. Remember music is this two-step process. You have the idea generation part you’re trying to you identify things that you think are going to work and sound good and then you have the judgment part where you’re just listening to something and literally seeing if that sound lights up the neurons in your head.
When someone is they’re saying you know here’s your key these are the notes that fit in your key this note does not belong to your key it’s very difficult to not start developing this bias. You are playing something, you play a note and you think that that doesn’t work if it’s not in my key and you’re not actually listening to it and just seeing if you’re you know your brain is reacting to it. You’re actually letting this bias come in when you’re thinking it’s the wrong note and more often than not it’s not even a conscious process you’re not literally thinking this it’s just kind of leaked into your to your head somehow and that’s a very difficult thing to have to deal with. When you’re learning the guided approach, and to make it worse, there’s plenty of teachers, and, I I’ve done this before, it’s a very easy thing to kind of slip up and do but plenty of teachers will present things as if there is this, here’s how you should do it. So, you shouldn’t do that.
So that’s the first major issue with what most people think of when they’re learning music theory. On the other hand that’s not very likely to happen if you’re taking the experimental approach. If you’re just playing things and trying to discover it for yourself you’re much less likely to develop this bias, like all these notes are the right notes or the wrong notes or whatever. Because you’re just kind of trying stuff and seeing how it sounds. Now the other a serious issue that can happen when you’re taking this guided path is that very often the things you’ll try you know the idea generation part gets limited to what you already have learned. You know if you’re just a few months into learning this stuff and you’ve learned about major keys or whatever and you know you’re playing in the key of G major your way less likely to try notes that don’t fit in. You’re not likely to play a c-sharp or an F natural because it’s not part of your key and so your experimentation part gets very limited. Whereas, if you’re just experimenting and trying stuff you’re not really limiting yourself. You know in the same way so that can be a huge thing – and you have to realize that just because you don’t know what something is you know if you don’t know that F is part of the mixolydian mode and that it has these sounds attached to it you can do these things with it.
Just because you don’t know that yet doesn’t mean that you should prejudge that note and say that it doesn’t work well. I just realized that you know if you play this and you don’t understand it yet you simply haven’t learned the name for that or you haven’t learned whatever concept describes what you’re playing. But that should never cloud that the judgment part of what you’re doing. Those are, I think, of the two major issues you run into when you’re learning theory in the more traditional sense.
Now before you think well screw music theory I’m just going to do the experimental approach that sounds way better, there’s huge problems there as well. One of the biggest issues you run into with the experimental approach and I can think of the specific example. I remember this kid that had come in for lessons he had played piano for a long time and he was fantastic. He would just sit down and improvise and he would blow you away. Anyone would be impressed with this guy and I remember thinking like what am I going to teach this guy? I mean he’s great he does this better than I can. I mean, what am I supposed to say to him? But if you listen to him after a while you start to realize that he would always playing in the same key. He really had about 10 or 15 minutes of material that he had kind of worked up and discovered and everything he did was just that stuff and like little variations. You realize he can’t really do much else besides that and then this was why he had come to get lessons. He wanted to get beyond this and he knew he was limited. The reason was that he had evolved in this very natural way where he had just played stuff and tried it and try to see how it sounds and he you know would learn that. OK, you know this note sounds like this and this note sounds like that and he would put together these little chords and relationships and scales based on how this note sounds this way and this note sounds this way without even realizing it. He was thinking it was C minor, he was playing everything in c minor. He didn’t even know that. He would sit there and just go wild in this key and you say hey cool can you play that in f minor. He would say what’s an F minor? He did not yet didn’t understand because he’s learned in this very natural kind of way. But without realizing it, he learned the simplest way of identifying something and if he had had someone there saying no actually that this note sounds this way because it’s this far away from your root note and you know if you move your root note somewhere else then you know now this note is going to sound that way. He could have learned things in this more relational sense, he wouldn’t have gotten stuck like that and there’s all kinds of subtle ways that that issue will come up along that experimental path.
You know you learn things not necessarily in the best way because you really don’t know what the best way is. Your just discovering it and then another issue that that can happen is that very often you know there are certain things that are very hard to discover on your own, just experimental like, you know some particularly weird cord that really only works if it leads into another chord. You think like secondary dominants or that kind of thing, like unless you really have a sense of what to do with this weird sound it doesn’t work. It is very hard to just randomly discover a weird cord that doesn’t sound right and then randomly discovered that if you go to this other weird court it all kind of works. So that stuff can be really hard to discover on your own and you’ll see this happen a lot for a lot of different pop artists or groups. You know you can tell that they’ve evolved very naturally in their music and most of the songs that they write are pretty much all in the same key they pretty much use the same chords and they’re all they’re kind of stuck into this style. Maybe they might be fine with it, it is not necessarily bad but you can very easily see that that’s a limitation of the way they’ve learned music.
Okay so here’s I think what all this means. You will get to the practical part of this discussion thing I assume that if you’re reading this especially if you’re looking to further your music, you’re trying to be a better musician and I’m kind of simplifying this a little bit too or may be exaggerating. You know I’m saying that there’s these two paths but if you’re taking the experimental path there’s no way to be completely isolated.